When I read SERAPHINA in 2012, I was just about out of words to describe it. It was, I decided a medieval mystery, based on its woodcut American cover, only it's not really set in medieval times, and there are dragons, half-dragons and dragons-in-human-form; there is aggression and an alleged peace accord between people and dragons in the kingdom of Goredd - and there is murder most foul - and most obviously dragon-done. In the first book, a quiet musician was almost instantly plunged into big trouble - and how she rode it out, and what she did and how she did it was utterly absorbing.
And Seraphina won ALL the things - the 2013 YALSA Morris Award for Best YA Debut Novel Finalist for the 2012 Governor General’s Literary Award (Canada), Short-listed for the Kitschies’ Golden Tentacle Award (UK), Long-listed for the Carnegie Medal (UK) and it was a New York Times bestselling children’s chapter book. EVERYONE loved it, and I know I joined thousands of readers jonesing for more from that world.
And, if I couldn't find the words to talk about the FIRST book, you can be pretty well assured that I couldn't find a single-phrase description to do this story justice. It was, by turns, quiet, suffocating, infuriating, harrowing, depressing, triumphant and brilliant. I want to reread the first one and read the second one again. There are VERY few books I reread, dear people, very few. So, this says a lot about my review, right up front. If SERAPHINA was a medieval mystery, SHADOW SCALE is a pilgrimage novel, wherein our heroine travels the world to find out that she really didn't need to leave home.
And the question on hundreds of young fans minds, fans who waited anxiously (and less than patiently, not gonna lie) the two and a half years for the perfected second book - the question is, "Is SHADOW SCALE worth the wait?"
Summary: Despite all that she and her friends have tried to do to stop it, war is coming to Goredd. The story picks up a couple of months after the conclusion of SERAPHINA and the princess Glissenda is no longer her music student - or a princess. Glissenda's mother and grandmother are unable to take up their duties, so she has to step up and be queen. The first thing the new queen does is send out a SOS to the expatriate dragons who had emigrated from Goredd years ago to the surrounding kingdoms - and send Seraphina as her envoy to gather the exiled dragons home - to fight for a land which once harried and rejected them.
What could possibly go wrong?
It's a marvelous opportunity for Seraphina, who, in the previous book discovered the connections she has to other half-dragons in her mind's garden, and who wants desperately to connect with them in person, and rally them to her cause - and to her home, where they can be part of her family. But, like Glissenda, Seraphina is operating on the assumption that her way is the best way, and that her home is the best home -- and it seems that not everyone can be relied upon to be as goodhearted and true as she and her friends are. There are sickening betrayals, manipulations, and terrifying invasions ahead. War is coming - but the biggest war Serephina will fight will be in her own mind.
Peaks: Some of the good which was in the first of this duology is magnified here - subtle and less-subtle diversity. There is a freedom in a non-binary novel; there is no either/or, yes/no answer. Moral ambiguities abound, which make you have to set the book aside and think, "Huh. What what do I think of that? What would I do about that?" It's really good for the wee brain, that is. Early on in the book, Seraphina is introduced to an arch-nemesis who is utterly terrifying - at least she was to me. She blames herself for causing hurt and keeps putting off hard choices. In the end, because of that, someone - two someones, actually - take irreparable injury. There are consequences, cause and effect, and even in the land of dragons and magic, there is realism. I love it.
There is romance in this novel, as there was in the first - mostly a cerebral sort where things are thought, and longings felt, as at times a romance must be, in a time of war - but even in that detail, the emotions aren't limited to an either/or sigh-inducing triangle sort of thing. It's a "this is our answer, what works here and now, and the details are none of yours." I loved that, too.
Valleys: This is a tiny valley - a divot, really - and it probably has less to do with the book than it does with me. For reasons I cannot entirely lay a finger on, I had a hard time getting into this book. SERAPHINA hooked me instantly, absorbed me fully, and caused me to neglect or delay all kinds of necessary doings, yet this novel seemed dense with detail and remembered city scenes, but somehow, I didn't feel so drawn. I was able to put it down, which, frankly, scared me. I wondered if it had simply been too long since I'd read the first book - then boom. Suddenly, I was in, and meals went uneaten, and necessary things went undone. SO. Don't fret if you feel, in the first few pages of the book, that it's missing something. It's like a quiet roller coaster that goes slowly up...sits a moment at the top, lets you survey the landscape... and then drops you forty feet, jerks around at a ninety degree angle, and starts corkscrewing wildly. Hang in there 'til the ride starts to REALLY move, people.
Conclusion: There is a satisfying - though sobering and a little heartbreaking - conclusion to the novel. It ends. It does end. This duology is IT for Seraphina's storyline. Except: there are enough little dangling... rootlets? To create a whole 'nother tree. This is not on accident:
(Hat tip to Goodreads user Elaine for the screen cap.)
REJOICE! All that amazing class structure and world building and saints and folklore and philosophies and lesser dragons and music and linguistics and massive libraries and awesome peoples will still exist, just across the bridge, in another room, in another book, in the kingdom of Goredd. Happy dance.
I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. After March 10th - just a few more days! - you can find SHADOW SCALE by Rachel Hartman at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!